by Glenn Nelson
It must be nice being a white columnist for The New York Times, able to outfit yourself and your daughter with the equipment and food necessary to hike 210 miles, freely travel to the Pacific Crest Trail, and not have to fret about being stared at, told you don’t belong or outright getting attacked. And it must really be nice to declare the outing to be “free,” and to write in your column that “egalitarianism thrives in the wilderness.”
For a lot of us people of color, this outlook is the very definition of “privilege,” something we keep tossing out, and privileged white folk keep tossing back at us, confused and insulted.
The column headline says, “This Land is Our Land.” To view those words through the lens of people of color is to experience the disappointing truth in them. This land indeed is “your” land, but you can’t see that awful fact and therefore cannot acknowledge it.
I don’t begrudge Nicholas Kristof’s right – I daresay, his privilege – to express that opinion. His newspaper, after all, recently published my piece, “Why are Our Parks So White?” Mr. Kristof either doesn’t read his own newspaper thoroughly, rejects my premise or, most likely, doesn’t even have to consider the possibility that the outdoors really aren’t an escape from “oppressive inequality” for everyone.
(NOTE: Clicking on an image will launch a larger-sized version or gallery).
The privileged viewpoint is the biggest obstacle to diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. That viewpoint isn’t active opposition to diversity, it’s an institutionalized blindness to the lack thereof.
Certainly, the privileged wouldn’t have seen the three Confederate flags along the approach to North Cascades National Park, the way my Latina wife and I did. We couldn’t help but see them. Our sighting reminded my wife, a native Los Angeleno, to recall her first drive to the North Cascades. She saw a Confederate flag then, too; figured she “didn’t know what I was getting into,” turned around and drove back to Seattle.
I’ve received a lot of skepticism from my assertions that people of color not only are nervous about treatment in the backcountry, they’re hesitant about even making the drive to get there in the first place. Just string together footage of typical scenes found on the way to the three national parks in this state alone. You’d get fenced-off homes with pickups on the front lawn, “no trespassing” signs and, even, Confederate flags – a perfect “welcome to redneck country” video, set to the banjo riff from “Deliverance,” that folks of color, at least from my generation, instantly recognize as the bigots’ national anthem.
Earlier this month, an African American man from Seattle shot the video below. It shows t-shirts with images of the Confederate flag being sold at a store in Winthrop, Wash., the eastern gateway town to North Cascades National Park. The shirts apparently no longer are being sold at the store, Shotgun Nellies, but their presence was the sort of thing that immediately registers with a person of color and not necessarily a white person whose privilege affords them a pass on noticing unwelcoming queues.
Last week, I volunteered to distribute fliers at Mount Rainier National Park on the 99th birthday of the National Park Service. It was a fee-free day, so the variable of finances essentially was removed from the table. Of the 400 cars I conservatively estimated passed through the Nisqually entrance while I was there, just 1.5 percent contained at least one African American. The figure was the same for Latinos.
(Note: As a Japanese American journalist, I have lived with and observed race all my life. I didn’t – and could not have – expressly ask visitors for their racial backgrounds. If I wasn’t sure, or if the visitors essentially didn’t speak English, I didn’t count them).
Those numbers line up with another highly unscientific survey I conducted for my New York Times op-ed. At the beginning of summer, I nodded at Mount Rainier, which looms over the most diverse neighborhoods in Seattle, and asked people of color, “Ever been there?”
Representative of the responses, Jeff Cheatham, who grew up in southeast Seattle, said, bluntly, of Mount Rainier and other national parks, “I’ve never been, and never thought about going.”
An African American author, Cheatham still can’t fire up his fertile imagination and envision himself and his peers in a national park. He doesn’t even know what to expect. “As far as I know, it’s a big field of grass,” he said.
If public lands were so egalitarian, people of color would know more (or even anything) about them. They’d know about the immense benefits to physical and mental health. And they wouldn’t be so nervous to go there.
Mr. Kristof writes that two fathers of our national park system, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, were independently wealthy, yet “understood the importance of common ownership of some of America’s natural heritage, so that access didn’t depend on wealth or breeding.” That’s one interpretation. There are many others who believe Roosevelt and Pinchot recognized public lands as the perfect respite from “urban stressors,” which maybe (or probably) refers to people of color, the most urban Americans.
My op-ed piece received at least 1,500 comments on New York Times platforms, as well as my own, and not even counting the backlash on conservative blogs. More people than I’d ever have dreamed said, “ ‘They’ don’t want to be in the parks and we don’t want ‘them’ in the parks, either.” More disturbing to me were the larger numbers who either denied there was a problem or asserted that people of color don’t want to be outdoors and shouldn’t be made to be, as if an aversion to the wilderness was somehow genetic.
Wow. Or, as one of my interview subjects, Michelle Perry, an African American woman, noted, “We’re Earth people. Anything to do with nature, we know is right.”
People of color have had to have their connection to nature systematically rung out of them. African Americans (slavery), Japanese Americans (internment), Chinese Americans (railroad), Latinos (migrant farm work) and Native Americans (let’s start a list) all were assigned a negative association with the outdoors by the white majority in this country. Mix in generations of social and cultural conditioning and you have the recipe for the projected nonwhite majority in this country (within 30 years, per the U.S. Census Bureau) lacking an affinity for the outdoors, and all the issues that come with it.
Privilege blinds the almost exclusively white outdoors infrastructure (conservation and environmental organizations and retailers) to the fact that diversity and inclusion in public lands is their issue. People of color are not trying to break down the door to the backcountry; this ain’t the civil rights movement. This is whites lapping up their last few decades of privilege and so utterly ignoring the truth, they risk handing off their future and legacies, not to mention the health of the planet, to massive uncertainty.
I’m all for trumpeting the delights and benefits of the outdoors. But Nicholas Kristof went too far, reinforcing the dangerous illusion of the democratic nature and “economic diversity” of the American wilderness. Yes, there is a lesson here, but not one worth emulating, as he suggests.